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Alarm

[This is a piece I wrote in September, at a time when chatter about Israel striking Iran had reached something of a fever pitch.]

A few days before Rosh Hashanah, I was sitting at my Hebrew teacher’s dining room table with five other students learning holiday-related vocabulary when a siren went off. I’m not talking about a police siren; I’m talking about the unnervingly loud and penetrating whoo-whoo-whoo-whoo get-in-the-shelters-now! kind of siren. We all instinctively looked at our watches: if the alarm was going off on the hour, it was probably a drill we hadn’t heard about. It was 11:07.

Embarrassingly, my hand, like that of a silent-movie heroine, clapped over my heart. My mind raced: Did we hit Iran today? Is this a retaliatory strike? The student to my left glanced at me, eyes wide. The student to my right pulled out her cell phone to call her husband. A student across the table said, matter-of-factly, “I think this is real.” I felt around under the table for the shoes I’d kicked off, in part because we might have to start moving at any second, but also because it felt vaguely unseemly to face possible annihilation while not completely dressed.

Within a few minutes, it was clarified that it was, after all, a drill of the city alarm system that had for some reason gone off a little late. Our teacher, an unflappable Israeli, smiled: our years here, in some cases amounting to decades, had not been sufficient to prevent our getting the vapors over a non-event. We went back to our discussion of the grammatical explanation for the tradition of eating beets on Rosh Hashanah.

In the space of what in retrospect must have been a matter of seconds, I’d imagined – in weirdly specific detail — that we were about to experience a full-scale attack. I didn’t imagine dying, but did imagine not being able to get to, or even communicate with, my kids. I imagined no one outside the country knowing what had happened to us or how to reach us. The fear was not being crushed or gassed or exploded; it was that we were about to be pushed inside a kind of isolation tank with no exit. We would be, to all intents and purposes, erased, our personalities and individual voices replaced by the generic “missing,” “victims,” “collateral damage,” “presumed dead.”

Now, my particular voice is hardly representative of Israel or the United States. Nor does it represent all mothers or secular Jews or political independents. All it represents is me. But if a real attack does occur and I’m unlucky enough to be in the middle of it, my particular slant on things – my unique Judithness, for whatever that may be worth – will be a thing of the past. And my new facelessness – the erasure of my identity, as well as the identities of all the others buried beside me under the rubble – will serve other people’s agendas.

We in Israel are forever being lumped together, and not only by those who wish to malign us. Israel is one of those subjects, like vaccinations or Jennifer Aniston’s love life, about which most people feel qualified to have an opinion, no matter how minute their actual knowledge of it. We’re all soldiers, all victims, all occupiers, all heroes, all redeemers of the land, all Nazis. That strategy of argument works well at cocktail parties and in graduate seminars, but its distortion of reality could ultimately come at a massive cost to those of us who live here.

Reducing the arguments to their essences, there are two schools of thought about Israel. One holds that we are morally obliged to concede everything it’s possible to concede in exchange for the right to live at all, since our very existence as a nation is an affront to the natural order. The country was stolen; it is therefore illegitimate, and any attempt to wrest it out of the hands of the thieves and restore it to the displaced is morally justified, no matter how barbaric the methods of restoration might be. We have forfeited our right to be considered human beings – creatures with a right to defend ourselves, and to be offended by double standards concerning violence against us – by callously blinding ourselves to the plight of those we have collectively wronged. Israeli children are as guilty as Israeli adults – as inhuman – since they are the product of a sinful enterprise. We are a monolith that offends the sensibilities of all decent people and are thus not entitled to be differentiated as people worthy of individual concern. Israeli Jews can earn readmission to the human race by agreeing, humbly and without insolent reciprocal demands, to deny our national and religious history, and to turn our backs on everything we’ve built on the stolen, sacred land.

The other school of thought is deeply sympathetic to Israel. We are the sole beacon of enlightened Western thought in an ocean of repressive Islamic theocracies and corrupt Arab “republics”. We are the standard-bearers for progress out of the darkness. We are the brave nation that rose out of the ashes of the murdered six million to give meaning to their destruction, and to give the Jews the home they have been denied for generation upon generation. We are indomitable in the face of relentless condemnation of all our attempts to safeguard our lives and those of our children. We are uncowed by the poison of salon anti-Semitism, which winkingly delegitimizes us from Oxford to Berkeley. We are both the first line of defense and the last stand against radical Muslim tyranny, which is at war with every freedom the West has grown too complacent to value. We are the army of the free. We are the army of the Lord.

That’s all very flattering, but that argument too depends on a monolithic, inherently dehumanized view of Israelis. And it can conceal opinions that are not in anyone’s interest, least of all ours. It’s possible, after all, to simply dump responsibility for ridding the world of the Islamist menace on our shoulders while hiding behind admiration of our plucky fortitude, all the while retaining the right to condemn us in public. Statements of allegiance with our struggles also provide socially acceptable cover for an otherwise unpalatable enjoyment of Arab- or Persian-bashing fantasies (“Israel will take them out” re Iran; “Israel should throw them all out” re the Palestinians). Just like the argument of the Israel-haters, it denies our individual realities.

This will come as a surprise in some precincts, but it is no easier for Israelis to take on the moral burden of killing than it is for any other civilized people. In fact, any honest investigation into the history of the Israeli army suggests exactly the opposite. It‘s an unfortunate fact that we have to defend ourselves often; it does not follow that we have become congenitally inured to the moral weight of every action we must take to do so. We have no more desire to send our children and husbands into harm’s way, or to burden them with the weight of ethical responsibility they must bear in the heat of battle, than anyone else does. Nor do we have any desire to punish people, and peoples, who are as individual as we are.

I therefore resent it when pundits abroad urge us, steam rising from their laptops, to strike Iran some time within the next ten minutes, apparently judging on our behalf that the moment is ripe. Part of my resentment stems – I admit it – from the evident lack of concern for the blowback we would inevitably suffer here. But there’s more to it than that. Perhaps because we know the feeling so well, most of us do not view the population of Iran as a faceless block of opinion-less inconveniences. Some of them are certainly our enemies, but some – perhaps many – are nothing of the kind. We do not wish to be compelled, either by genuine circumstances on the ground or by distant cheerleaders with interests of their own, to rain destruction on anyone.

If Iran does genuinely threaten this nation – these living six million – Israel will not turn the other cheek. She does not have that luxury. But if Israel must act, it will be with a heavy heart. And if I happen to get caught in the crossfire, let it be known that there was a Judith once – an American, an Israeli, a Jew, a mother, but most of all, a Judith. She had a certain slant on things, and it wasn’t quite like anybody else’s.